By Nathan Joyce The Kitsap Sun
SEATTLE — The Albert Lee Cup at Seafair has a new name on the undercard.
For years, the Unlimited Lights Hydroplanes Racing Association ran its boats concurrently with the main event, the unlimited hydroplanes. The ULHRA has splintered, with many of its boats landing in the Grand Prix West circuit.
This year, the Formula One Prop Series brings a different style of racing to Lake Washington.
The F1 features a shorter (16 feet), narrower boat with a tunnel-shaped hull similar to a catamaran. They top out at about 125 mph.
They also make sharper turns than unlimited hydroplanes, and will run a different course off the Stan Sayres pits. They run close to the shore and throw in a couple right-hand turns.
“It’s kind of like a Formula One road course,” Jose Mendana, Jr. said Tuesday at the Seafair news conference at the Museum of Flight. Mendana is an owner, driver and runs the series (along with his job as an accountant).
The F1s, an owner-run series that has six races, will run seven 10-lap heats with a 15-lap championship.
“We came out last year and said ‘We gotta this done,” Mendana said. “It’s pretty cool.”
Every year, as the hydroplane circuit makes its stop in Seattle, the talk is about how the sport is growing in popularity.
Oh Boy! Oberto driver Steve David points out that the American Power Boat Association was formed in 1903 and “for 109 years, they’ve been putting nails in our coffin.”
In the mid-2000s, the sport was in jeopardy as interest waned and race sites dried up.
“It wasn’t really going well five or six years ago,” Spirit of Qatar driver Dave Villwock said.
It could be the sport is on its way back. H1 Unlimited signed a deal for a race in Sacramento in 2013 and is planning to race in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, next year (though an exhibition in late August was scrubbed because a lack of a sponsor, the Spokesman-Review reported).
There’s also been talk for several years of trying to add a race in China.
“We certainly have our niche in the gearhead world,” David said.
David also points out that the field is more competitive. David and Villwock in the U-1 Spirit of Qatar are still the dominant boats, but the U-5 Graham Trucking, U-37 Miss Beacon Plumbing and 88 Degree Men are close behind.
“If we hiccup, they’re right there,” David said.
“Top to bottom, our series is the strongest it’s ever been,” H1 spokesperson Steve Montgomery said.
Hydroplane owner Fred Leland died in May after a five-year battle with cancer.
His team is continuing on in honor of its owner. Kirkland-based Leland Unlimited, LLC has two boats in the field at Seafair, the U-100 Miss Fox Plumbing and the U-99 Miss Fox Plumbing Too.
Montgomery talked about how Leland refused to wear uniforms at races and instead wore plaid and striped shirts with snaps.
“The rumor was, he got them at Wal-Mart,” Montgomery joked.
The race crew found dozens of Leland’s shirts, slapped H1 Unlimited logos on them and has worn them as uniforms in the pits this season.
Albert Lee Appliances announced it would be the sponsor for hydroplane race through 2015. It’s the third year Albert Lee has sponsored the event. … Nate Brown is back driving his own boat, the U-17 Miss Red Dot, which is based in Preston. Driver Kip Brown broke his leg in a testing session in Tri-Cities. Brown took over but didn’t get his boat into the finals at the Columbia Cup. … David is the defending champ at Seafair and has won three of the last five years.